Why match-fixing in cricket is such a lucrative business

Match-fixing and corruption have permeated every form of cricket internationally.

Cricket photo
Activists burn an effigy of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim during a protest against the betting scandal involving some Indian cricketers in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta on May 29, 2000 [Reuters]

It was a typical quiet January evening at the Indian Club, an upmarket members-only haunt in the Oud Metha neighbourhood of glitzy Dubai, in 2003. But the clinking of drinks, amiable chatter and kissing of cue balls at the billiards table were suddenly benumbed by a brutal murder. Twenty shots rang out . Blood oozed from the skull of the victim onto the green baize. Another bodybag required for cricket’s mafia war.

The dead man was Indian national Sharad Shetty. He was a deputy of the infamous and feared mafia boss Dawood Ibrahim, whose D-Company gang was in the middle of a power struggle with a rival mob. Chhota Rajan, head of the Mumbai underworld, was suspected of ordering the assassination. Bullets and bodies were being traded for one thing: control of India’s vast illegal cricket gambling market. Shetty was killed a month before the Cricket World Cup in South Africa.

Shetty was seen as the “financial muscle” of D-Company’s operations. His death dealt a heavy blow on the mafia cartel and gave Rajan an opportunity to grab a slice of the pie.

To this day, Ibrahim seeks revenge on Rajan for Shetty’s assassination. Late last year, it was reported he would attempt to kill his rival, who was finally jailed in April 2017 for seven years. The war continues.

Control India‘s betting market and you control the sport a billion people call their religion. It is a licence to print money. Conservative estimates by investigators show that this illicit market is worth up to $100bn a year.

When such huge sums can be made, cricket’s attempt to retain its whiter-than-white reputation is laughably impossible. Not least because when D-Company comes calling, players, selectors, coaches, umpires and groundsmen do as they’re told.

There may be fans who raise an eyebrow that the mafia still holds a stake in the game, but the truth is this business is too lucrative for criminals to give up.

The role of Aneel Munawar, confirmed by Indian intelligence as a D-Company man and exposed in Al Jazeera’s powerful documentary, in match-fixing is a sickening reality check. The overriding emotion, however, from this important expose is a different sort of surprise.

The anti-corruption officials investigating match-fixing in cricket have privately insisted that franchise Twenty20 cricket offers the greatest opportunity to those who wish to corrupt the game for money. And it made perfect sense.

Backpacker cricketers, with no allegiance to the franchise or often disunited teammates, hop from one country to the next, picking up paycheques and bad habits. The fixing disease, from outright results to manipulating the scoring rate, spreads. From India to Bangladesh to England, fixers have been at play.

Test cricket, a form of cricket that takes the longest to play, was supposed to be clean. We were told that corrupters looked elsewhere to make their money, preferring the fast bucks of 20-over cricket – a shorter form of the sport. The giddy fans in the stands were not the only ones who gained instant gratification. Test cricket was untouchable. It was too important, too precious for anyone to consider sullying it.

That view appears to be bunkum. And this is the most important revelation of Al Jazeera’s investigation. It exposes a sport which, with a toxic combination of breathtaking arrogance and insecurity, believed its own PR about the vaunted five-day game.

If the Al Jazeera film proves anything, it is that match-fixers will try to do their dirty work any time and anywhere. And maybe Test cricket it the perfect staging post. In a five-day match, perhaps players are more comfortable manipulating a chunk of overs for a wad of cash.

One former international cricketer, I had been told, had boasted that such skullduggery “didn’t impact the result” so it was rife. And that was T20.

The warnings have long been ignored. Here’s what India’s Central Bureau of Investigation said about mafia influence in 2000.

“There are clear signals that the underworld mafia has started taking interest in the betting racket and can be expected to take overall control of this activity, if not checked immediately with a firm hand. It does appear that what may have been small-time wagering has now been replaced by organised syndicates, and this syndicate has started interfering with the purity of the sport. It has been the negligence of the police and other regulatory authorities, that has allowed wagering to turn into an organised racket.”

Shetty and Ibrahim had attended cricket matches in Sharjah in the past. The International Cricket Council’s anti-corruption unit has investigated allegations of fixing of the one-day games played there. It was where D-Company cut its teeth. Fittingly, like the gambler who steadily grows his staking balance to a sum sizeable enough to turn professional, the D-Company duo did the same.

The Indian market is the perfect ecosystem for match-fixing. For a start, betting is illegal in India. That means there is no paper trail leading to those who are corrupting games. In a legal market like, say, in the UK, the amount of personal information required to open an account means that, if you tried anything shifty, the police would be knocking on your door within a few hours.

The other important difference is that in places like the UK it is almost impossible for a gambler to place large enough bets to fix anything. Bookmakers have sophisticated early warning systems which prevent a “gamble” or a “fix”. The market is shut down.

That rarely happens in India, where the average wager can be as big as $1,000. The size of the average bet makes it much easier to “hide” corruption. Although bookmakers talk to each other about who or what the money is coming for, they often only spot a fix only when it is too late. And even then they are reluctant to halt betting because they are loathe to let down regular, fair customers. Fixers will spread their money across multiple bookmakers to avoid detection.

It is estimated that there are up to 100,000 bookmakers in India. They all subscribe to at least one of the three main syndicates (or the head bookmakers who set the odds and then provide smaller bookies further down the chain with a live feed of the odds). There are no betting shops. Bookies operate in secret, having provided their clients with a telephone number to call on match day. Money changes hands in cash.

With the industry so vast, the potential for corruption is huge. A mafia group like D-Company has always had the power to infiltrate dressing rooms – they were known to have access to the India cricket team inner circle in the early 1990s – and the Board of Control for Cricket in India itself, leaning on selectors to get players who they know will do their bidding into the team. Bribes are paid to players to score slowly, lose their wickets and bowl waywardly. 

D-Company can operate as a punter, cajoling thousands of wagers from its henchmen and sympathisers across the country with its inside information. Or it can control the syndicate which sets the odds, encouraging gamblers to bet against the fix they have set up. Either way, they can make a killing. Literally.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.